Nine years ago when Hal Wingard visited French immersion classes in Montreal, he was so touched by hearing how fluently these children used a second language that he was on the verge of tears.
When he returned to San Diego, Mr. Wingard, a foreign language specialist for the city's public schools, set up a working committee to explore the possibility of establishing a similar program. Today San Diego has the largest second-language immersion program in the United States.
Mr. Wingard and his co-workers got the program under way when the district received funds for its integration program. Special academic classes were organized at magnet schools to attract children to the voluntary integration program. The Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA) provided funds for materials, resource teachers, curriculum development, and in-service education of teachers. In addition, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant of $61,000 has enabled the program to embark on activities in the fine arts and humanities, including programs for parents.
The Intercultural Language Program, as it is known, offers the regular academic curriculum in Spanish or French. Those who enroll must be native speakers of English. There are now 800 children in Grades K-8 in the immersion classes at five sites: Knox Elementary, where the language is French; it's Spanish at Horton, Oak Park, and Longfellow Elementary Schools and Memorial Jr. High.
Longfellow has the largest number of participants (686), and it is the only school in which all students are enrolled in the immersion program. It is known as a "super market."
Children who enter the program in Grades K-2 receive all instruction in Spanish. This includes instruction in reading. When these children reach Grade 3, and in each grade thereafter, they receive from 10 to 20 percent of their instruction in English.
Children who enter the programs in Grades 3-7 study half their subjects in Spanish and half in English. Subjects taught in Spanish tend to be those that are most manipulative and activity oriented, such as experimental science, mathematics, crafts, and physical education.
Dolores Duron, a project resource teacher, says that the math program in spanish has been especially successful. At the end of last year children at all grade levels scored at or above expectancy in the math section of the California Test of Basic Skills.
"When we teach math we can't use language as a crutch," Duron stated. "The children must understand the concepts visually. We use a lot of manipulative materials."
Parents sometimes help make these materials during their weekly Wednesday morning workshops. Simple items such as beans glued onto popsicle sticks can serve to illustrate important concepts.
All classes have a full-time bilingual aide, a part-time aide, and volunteer help. Instruction is frequently given in small groups of six to ten children. Some teachers have established reward systems to encourage more reticent students to verbalize their thoughts in the second language. In one first year classroom each student has a card on his desk which the teacher initials each time the student expresses himself in Spanish.
According to Maria Potter, the demonstration teacher and program coordinator at Longfellow School, first-year students generally make the switch from English to Spanish in the classroom by March. During the second or third year the children begin to address each other in Spanish. A visitor on the playground can hear Spanish being spoken by chilren of all racial backgrounds, all native speakers of English.
The benefits of the program are not strictly linguistic, says Mr. Wingard. Participants also learn to accept children who come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They profoundly understand the significance of cultural differences.
"These children will also have available to them a whole host of career and social opportunities which are closed to monolinguals," Wingard stated.
Other cities that have immersion programs in Spanish are Hayward and Culver City, in California, and Chevy Chase, Md. (Rock Creek Forest School). There are French immersion programs in Silver Spring, Md.; Holliston, Mass.; and Milwaukee , Wis.
In San Diego, Spanish is the most popular language learned in the schools. But, Wingard adds, it should no longer be considered the most appropriate.
"We must begin to take a broader view in terms of the needs of our nation," commented Mr. Wingard. "There is no shortage of speakers of Spanish. Certainly more English speakers should be learning Spanish, but that is a relatively easy matter here in California. As a nation we now need speakers of Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi, and Russian. We have a deficiency in those languages. I would like very much to begin an immersion school in Japanese. We do tremendous commerce with Japan. And do you realize how many American businessmen there are in Japan who do not speak Japanese?"
The current immersion programs in Spanish and French have been well supported by the community as part of the San Diego Plan for Racial Integration. Many parents of the immersion participants are also taking classes to learn the same second language.
"Once a person is bilingual," Wingard said, "learning a third language is easy. The children in our program know how to do it. They don't have the blocks about language learning that many kids have."
Whether it is Spanish or French, Japanese or Mandarin, the promoters of San Diego's intercultural language schools are committed to a philosophy of educating children to become functionally fluent in two languages and to giving them a broad view of their place as individuals in the world.
For information on immersion education you may contact Hal Wingard, Foreign Language Curriculum Specialist, San Diego City Schools, 4100 Normal Street, San Diego, Calif. 92103.m